The future left: red, green and republican?

The abolition of the monarchy is only a minor part of modern republicanism. Stuart White, of Jesus College, Oxford, outlines the key values of republican democracy and argues that its commitment to an active, participatory citizenship has much in common with red and green politics. Is a fusion of these three strands in the radical tradition the way forward for a new, transnational progressive philosophy?

February 11, 2010
23 min read

We know that the left must be red and green. It needs to be red in that it should incorporate the left’s historic commitments to economic, social and political equality. It should be green in frankly and fully accepting the constraint of environmental sustainability. But should the left of the future also be republican?

Republicanism is a political tradition – or set of traditions – with a long history. From a left perspective, not all of that history is very pretty. In recent years, however, a distinctively modern and democratic republicanism has undergone a revival in academic circles. This republican turn has strong logical connections, moreover, with a wide range of other important recent discussions in academic political theory, such as those around the ideas of deliberative democracy and new forms of property rights. (Many of the practical expressions of these ideas have been explored by the ‘Real Utopias Project’, directed by Erik Olin Wright at the Havens Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.)

Daniel Leighton and I have attempted to draw together some of these ideas in an edited book, Building a Citizen Society (White and Leighton, 2008). We argue that they point to a new politics of republican democracy.

As we shall see, republican democracy converges in many ways with the kind of red-green politics that Red Pepper has helped to develop. By engaging with republican thought, red-green politics can perhaps come to a better understanding of its own underlying values and principles. This, in turn, can provide new insights for red-green politics. But there may also be some lessons that red-green politics can teach republicans. Or so I shall argue.

What is republican democracy?

Republicanism is a word that invites misunderstanding. So let us be clear at the outset: republicanism does not mean only, or even primarily, opposition to having a monarch. The monarchy is, to be sure, a silly, morally offensive institution. But abolishing the monarchy is not where the real action lies for a contemporary republican. We need to look at the deeper values and principles that inform the opposition to monarchy – values that call for a much wider and deeper social transformation. Five values or principles are crucial.

1. Popular sovereignty. First, republican democracy rests on a view about where, or with whom, authority properly lies. It lies with ‘We, the people’. The ultimate law-makers, the ultimate bearers of responsibility for the laws and welfare of society, ought to be the people themselves. This principle is common to the self-understanding of contemporary capitalist democracies. It is by no means clear, however, that they do, or even can, live up to it. In the UK, the very principle remains somewhat controversial: as Iain McLean argues in his new book on the British constitution, constitutional lawyers still maintain that parliament is sovereign (McLean, 2009). This conflicts with the principle of popular sovereignty, even if only because two of the three houses of parliament (Lords and monarchy) are unelected.

2. Common good. For the republican, legitimacy is not only a matter of who exercises authority, but of the ends to which it is exercised. Interests in life, security, liberty and economic opportunity are shared and basic to all citizens, and the demos must use its power to enact laws that serve these interests, treating the interests of any one citizen as equally weighty to those of any other. This is a modern, democratic way of understanding the ancient, Aristotelian idea that a legitimate state must be oriented to the common good of the citizenry, rather than to some sectional or sectarian good.

3. Liberty. The common good is, in part, citizens’ shared and urgent interest in personal freedom. In his On the Origins of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau says that ‘the worst thing that can happen to one in the relations between man and man is to find oneself at the mercy of another’ (Rousseau, 1984). Freedom, understood as what Philip Pettit calls ‘non-domination’, is the state in which one does not live ‘at the mercy of another’ (Pettit, 1997; Skinner, 1998). To secure liberty, therefore, citizens must deny the state arbitrary power: power to interfere at its discretion, without appropriate constraint. At the same time, they must use their sovereign power to make laws and institutions that prevent domination in society at large, such as in the workplace and in the family.

4. Economic equality. Pursuit of the common good also demands limits to economic inequality. As Rousseau put it, ‘The social state is advantageous to men only if all have a certain amount, and none too much.’ (Rousseau, 1994) In part, this follows from the commitment to liberty: the dependence of the poor on the rich gives the rich power to interfere, according to their own will, in the lives of the poor. In part it also follows from the commitment to popular sovereignty. Wealth inequality can all too easily translate into an inequality of influence that undermines the democratic basis of popular sovereignty. Economic opportunity is also an important element of the common good in its own right. If a society works in a way that produces great inequalities of income and wealth, then there must be a question as to how far it is promoting economic opportunity as a genuinely common good.

5. Participation and civic virtue. To be a citizen, in the republican view, is not simply to enjoy a legal status. It is to have a definite moral personality. It is to have an understanding of the society’s common good, and a willingness to act to promote this. Without such commitment, then, as Rousseau argued, the republic is corrupted, a prey for elite interests.

Capitalism, socialism, or…?

This is rather abstract so far – as any account of the core ideas of a political philosophy has to be. However, we can begin to get a more concrete sense of what republican democracy involves by looking at some of its institutional implications. In particular, let’s consider how it relates to one of the central political confrontations of the modern age: that between capitalism and socialism.

Let’s take a capitalist society to be one characterised by: (1) a market-based allocation of resources; (2) private ownership of assets; and (3) considerable inequality in asset ownership. Republican democracy will obviously view the third aspect of capitalism with immense concern. As explained, high levels of wealth inequality threaten political equality and personal freedom. Indeed, it is arguable that such a society lacks the quality of a common good that is necessary to a genuine republic. Appeals to the common good in such a society can easily – and often do – serve an ideological function of obscuring basic conflicts of interest deriving from wealth inequality.

Thus, republican democracy will echo to some degree the socialist critique of capitalism. Indeed, as Philip Pettit has argued, the socialist critique of capitalism has frequently appealed to basic republican ideas. At the core of socialism lies a protest at what we may call the proletarian condition: a condition not simply of poverty, but of dependency on, and subordination to, the will of an employer. Socialist thinkers have repeatedly argued that specific measures to reduce inequalities have the effect of reducing this dependency and thereby increasing freedom. Freedom, R H Tawney comments, ‘implies at least that no man shall be amenable to an authority which is arbitrary in its proceedings’ (Tawney, 1964).

Let us now turn to socialism. The dominant model of socialism in the 20th century, albeit one that was repeatedly challenged in the name of socialism itself, is characterised by (1) state direction of the economy on the basis of (2) public (state) ownership of productive assets. So defined, socialism will also raise concerns for the republican democrat. She fears that such a system will generate its own inequalities of control over the means of production and, as a result, dependency and subordination not unlike that of a capitalist system – indeed, possibly much worse. This concern prompted many currents on the left – anarchism, syndicalism, guild socialism, elements of the New Lefts of the 1950s-70s – to reach for an alternative model of socialism.

A related republican concern is that socialist thought gives such a primacy to economic considerations that it often fails to come to terms with basic, permanent problems of political power. Even if those holding power are

well-intentioned, one is not free if one cannot discuss and meaningfully contest their decisions. In the absence of such discussion and contestation, abuse will, over time, become a near certainty. Some socialists, such as the Bolsheviks, have shown a fateful and fatal naivety on such questions. The experience of Marxism-Leninism is an appalling testimony to what happens when socialist thought is disconnected from republican common sense. Looking at the way some socialists today seek to rationalise every authoritarian act of a Hugo Chavez, I am not confident that, even now, we have all assimilated this republican common sense. Socialist thought needs republicanism to contain its potential for statism and authoritarianism.

If republican democracy is critical both of capitalism and the historically dominant model of socialism, does this mean it is a form of social democracy, the historical compromise between the two opposing systems?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, in that republican democracy does not seek an economy in which the market and private ownership is suppressed. No, in that republican democracy does have some institutional commitments that differ in emphasis and kind to those of social democracy as it developed in Britain and other advanced capitalist countries after the second world war. And these mark some notable points of convergence with contemporary red-green thinking.

Putting ownership back on the table

Post-war social democracy tended, at least in practice, to downplay issues around ownership of wealth (as opposed to income). It rejected the traditional socialist commitment to take all major industries into public ownership. It did not put much in its place. Republican democracy calls for renewed attention to ownership questions.

First, republican democracy is concerned with the way in which wealth (not only income) is distributed. For one thing, a much wider dispersion of wealth is essential to achieving liberty for all. Without property of their own, individuals become reliant on others – employers, spouses, family – for vital resources. But someone with property has crucial bargaining power. They need not scramble desperately into this or that job, because they can, for a limited time at least, live off their property. Related to this, property provides an independent basis for active citizenship.

One expression of this republican concern is interest in proposals for a citizens’ inheritance: a scheme under which all citizens would receive a capital endowment on maturity. The idea can be traced back to the origins of modern republicanism. Thomas Paine argued for such a policy in his Agrarian Justice, first published in 1797 (Paine, 1987). A closely related idea, of course, is that of a citizen’s income: a universal income grant paid without regard to means or willingness to work. A number of republican political theorists have argued for a citizens’ income in recent years, pointing to its potential to free individuals from risks of domination in the marketplace and to enhance opportunities for civic activism (Raventós, 2007).

The flip-side of such proposals is a concern for the fair taxation of wealth. Paine envisaged that the citizens’ inheritance would be funded by an inheritance tax. Following Paine’s lead, many social republicans of the 19th century, such as the Chartist engraver William James Linton, argued that natural resources properly belong to the people. Linton argued that the rental income from land should go to the state and be used to finance a system of universal education and a system of cheap credit to underpin a right to work. This is really a variant of the idea of appropriating natural resource values (such as through land value tax) to finance a citizens’ inheritance/income.

However, what matters is not only how wealth, and claims to the returns on wealth, are distributed, but the way in which the investment of wealth is controlled. Even when contemporary capitalism exhibits a degree of popular ownership it does not necessarily translate into popular control. We are in the middle of a deep economic recession precipitated by irresponsible lending practices by financial institutions. A large amount of the wealth at play in financial markets is owned by large institutional investors, such as pension funds, which draw their underlying wealth from the mass of wage workers. But workers who pay into pension funds typically have very little control over how their investments are used.

Their investments are deployed in the market in ways that can contribute to the kind of crisis that has unfolded in the past couple of years. The same workers may then be on the receiving end of the job cuts and other costs associated with the recession. As Robin Blackburn has argued, contemporary capitalism involves a form of alienation of the worker from her own savings: the savings become an entity separate from the worker and are thrown out to seek profit in ways that can hurt the worker’s own interests (Blackburn, 2002, forthcoming).

From a republican standpoint, this looks like a classic case in which some people have accumulated enormous power with very little accountability, putting others at the mercy of their decisions. So the republican democrat will support calls to democratise the way in which such funds are managed.

What is at stake here, however, is not simply democracy in the control of the funds themselves. The power to control investment is a hugely important strategic power in society. The threat of an investment strike or capital flight is one that places governments in capitalist societies under real constraints. Putting the control of investment flows under genuine popular control is, therefore, an essential step towards a genuinely democratic polity (Cohen, 1989).

The idea is not to put the control of investment in the hands of the central state – a prospect that the republican democrat will view with some alarm. Rather, as part of a system of what Blackburn evocatively calls ‘complex socialism’, the idea is to increase the control citizens can exercise over investment from within society. On the one hand, we can seek to increase the direct accountability of institutional investors, such as pension funds, to their savers. Second, as Robin Blackburn has argued, in Red Pepper and elsewhere, the state could impose a capital levy on firms, requiring them to issue new shares for a period to designated social funds (Blackburn, 2009, forthcoming). These social funds will then be controlled by trusts that draw on trade unions and community groups. Maurice Glasman’s recent proposal that we use a fraction of the funds from the payback of the bank bailout to create locally-based and popularly-managed social funds is in a similar vein (Glasman, forthcoming).

Participatory democracy

The vision of an active civil society managing some sizeable portion of the community’s assets brings us to a second important point of difference between republican democracy and mainstream post-war social democracy. This concerns the nature of citizenship.

For the most part, post-war social democracy accepted – even encouraged – a relatively passive notion of citizenship. Politically, active citizenship meant voting, at least some times, in parliamentary and local elections. To demand ‘participation’ beyond this was, in the view of social democrats such as Tony Crosland, certainly unreasonable (because people have their own lives to lead, their own gardens to tend) and possibly even dangerous (because ordinary people lack relevant kinds of expertise and, as Douglas Jay put it, ‘the man in Whitehall knows best’).

One of the major contributions of the New Lefts was to challenge this conception of democracy in favour of a more active and participatory ideal. Republican democracy seeks to recover and develop this aspect of the New Lefts.

There are at least three reasons for thinking that participation matters. First, it is often important for informational reasons. If public policy is to be effective in achieving its goals, then it needs to address local conditions and needs. As Hilary Wainwright has argued, popular participation in policy design can obviously help to provide relevant information and so make for more effective policy (Wainwright, 2003). Imperfect information requires the state to delegate decision making down, potentially drawing more citizens into decision-making processes.

Second, participation can have important educative effects. According to Alexis de Tocqueville, modern societies have an innate tendency towards ‘individualism’: people withdraw from public life and public concerns and become focused on and concerned for only their own immediate family and friends. Tocqueville rightly worried that such individualism would undermine freedom: people would sit passively in their homes, worrying about the ups and downs of their investments, while the state expanded its supervisory power (an image, perhaps, of New Labour Britain). It is also hard to see how such a society could ever summon up the collective will to confront a challenge like climate change.

One way to combat the danger of individualism, Tocqueville argues, is to design political arrangements to draw people into participation in collective decision making and associational life. This, he claims, will increase their sense of interdependency and their willingness to consider the interests of others. In the language of republicanism, participation in these ways helps to cultivate the civic virtue on which a just – and sustainable – society ultimately depends. This argument can apply not only to local government in the traditional sense, but to a range of contemporary, ongoing ‘democratic innovations’ that have recently begun to shape policy discussion and social criticism (Fung and Wright, eds, 2003; Smith, 2009).

Third, participation matters because of its power effects. As the level of popular participation in political life changes so, too, can the balance of power in society. Stated crudely, ‘people power’ can emerge as a counterweight to the power of money. Particularly interesting here, for republican democrats, are the new citizen-organising movements, like London Citizens, which seek to bring church groups, unions and other organisations together to campaign for policies such as Living Wages and better treatment of asylum seekers. Climate Camp and the Transition Towns movement, which obviously have a more targeted green agenda, are further examples of the citizen activism that republican democracy applauds. Republican democrats will be keen to consider the strengths and limitations of these various forms of citizen activism, how they might learn from each other and even collaborate in order to strengthen their respective campaigns.

The basic liberties

A third point of difference between republican democracy and social democracy concerns what one might call, following the philosopher John Rawls, the basic liberties: freedom of conscience, worship, expression and association, and the personal securities associated with the rule of law. The basic liberties are vital for at least two reasons: to contain arbitrary power and to secure space for effective citizen activism and participation. The difference here is perhaps more one of emphasis than kind. Social democracy has, of course, accepted the value of civil liberties. But, at least in the case of the Labour Party in the UK, the commitment has at times been weak. New Labour, in particular, has shown itself persistently insensitive to their importance.

Taking freedom to protest as just one example, last year alone saw the infamous incidents of ‘kettling’, along with widespread use of disproportionate force by the police, at the G20 protests. It also saw the police use mass preventive arrests to clamp down on nonviolent direct action by environmentalists. Not least, it was revealed that the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) ordered the construction of a photographic database of ‘domestic extremists’, a category with no standing in law, but which probably includes just about anyone reading Red Pepper.

When challenged to comment on the ACPO revelation, the Labour home secretary, Alan Johnson, replied that he had not asked the police to do this but he would not be falling to the floor ‘clutching his Kleenex’ about it. It would be hard to find a comment that reveals so acutely the sheer indifference of the government to fundamental civil liberties and republican concerns. For ACPO, from a republican standpoint, is a monster: a body exercising considerable power, at its own discretion, with little or no public accountability. It wields precisely the kind of arbitrary, monarchical power that classical republicans found so unacceptable.

More generally, republican democrats understand that nonviolent direct action often has a crucial role to play in increasing the public’s awareness of a morally grievous issue. It is a crucial stimulant to democratic debate, to a deeper consideration of citizen responsibilities. The law, and policing tactics, should be based around respect for such activity, not geared up to suppress it.

Can republicanism go global?

I have pointed to some of the ways in which red-green politics converges with, and can learn from, the philosophy of republican democracy. But it is important also to acknowledge some possible limitations of the republican perspective, and of ways in which red-green politics might have lessons to teach republicans. Here I will note just one area of difficulty.

The concept of the ‘citizen’ is, clearly, central to the idea of republicanism. But who gets to be a citizen? Classical republicanism typically operates with highly exclusive notions of citizenship. Citizens tend to be white male property-holders in a specific city-state. Modern republican thinking sought to universalise the status. Republicans sought to disconnect citizenship from gender, race and social class. Socialist republicans used the idea of universal citizenship to challenge the inequalities of social class. And the classical focus on the city state gave way, of course, to a focus on the nation-state.

And there lies at least one of the problems that a red-green politics today might have with republicanism. Is the idea of republican citizenship still objectionably exclusive precisely because it links citizenship with membership of a nation state? Is it, in this respect, a rather backward-looking and reactionary philosophy at odds with the transnational character of red-green politics?

One response is to consider how far a republican model of citizenship can inform activism and institutional design at a transnational level. The republican tradition surely offers some helpful resources here, both in terms of identifying the weaknesses of existing institutions and thinking about alternatives. In many ways, one might say that the implicit aim of much red-green transnational activism is to try to reconstruct the global order as a kind of republican polity.

Certainly, activist concerns with the existing global order seem often to echo republican concerns about the subjection of individuals to sites of arbitrary, monarchical power. Activism in itself can be seen as a way of awakening or creating a global demos that can, eventually, be the subject of a global republican democracy. Recent academic efforts to theorise the content of ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ and ‘cosmopolitan citizenship’, such as those by David Held, do seem to owe something to modern republican ideas about democracy and citizenship (Held, 2006).

Echoing Blackburn’s notion of ‘complex socialism’, we need to think in terms of a ‘complex republicanism’. Citizenship will not have a single location but a plurality of locations, at various levels. This, it should be said, is by no means a new idea in the republican tradition. The Chartist engraver, William James Linton, argues for precisely this way of understanding citizenship in his book of the 1850s, The English Republic, which drew for inspiration, in this respect, on the ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini and the transnational ‘Young Europe’ movement (Nabulsi, 1999).

What about the right to nation-state membership itself? A republican concern for freedom as non-domination provides at least two reasons to be critical of immigration controls. First, such controls in themselves might involve the subjection of individuals to arbitrary power; and second, such controls diminish the opportunity people have to escape arbitrary power. This is not to say that a republican must support a policy of open borders, or that this is the right policy. It is to say that republicanism is not necessarily committed to closed borders, or to any state’s actual existing immigration policy.

Of course, as we seek to globalise the perspective of republican democracy, tensions and conflicts will undoubtedly become apparent. For example, in any feasible political world, the demands for open borders and for a sizeable citizens’ income are likely to be in tension (assuming that new citizens are also eligible for the citizens’ income). Almost certainly, as a practical matter, we face a nasty trade-off. This is not, however, a problem specific to republicanism. It reflects a tension between ‘domestic’ and ‘global’ justice that any red-green politics probably has to confront.

Republicanism offers helpful resources for understanding what red-green politics is, or ought to be, fundamentally about. It does not offer a magic wand that can make all of the problems associated with such a politics disappear.


Blackburn, Robin, Banking on Death – Or, Investing in Life: The History and Future of Pensions (London, Verso, 2002)

\’Pressing the Limits\’, Red Pepper, December 2008/January 2009

Using Pensions for Social Control of Capitalist Investment (London, Verso, forthcoming)

Cohen, Joshua, ‘The Economic Basis of Deliberative Democracy’, Social Philosophy and Policy 6, 1989, pp 25-50

Fung, Archon, and Erik Olin Wright, eds, Deepening Democracy (London, Verso, 2003)

Glasman, Maurice, ‘An Embedded Economy’, in James Purnell and Graeme Cooke, eds, Open Left (London, Demos, forthcoming)

Held, David, Models of Democracy, chapter 11 (Cambridge, Polity, 2006)

McLean, Iain, What’s Wrong with the British Constitution? (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009)

Nabulsi, Karma, Traditions of War (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999)

Paine, Thomas, ‘Agrarian Justice’, in Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick, eds, The Thomas Paine Reader (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1987 [1797]), pp 471-489

Pettit, Philip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997)

Raventós, Daniel, Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (London, Pluto, 2007)

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, translated by Maurice Cranston, A Discourse on Inequality (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1984 [1755]).

Translated by Christopher Betts, The Social Contract (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994).

Skinner, Quentin, Liberty Before Liberalism (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Smith, Graham, Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Tawney, R H, Equality (London, Allen and Unwin, 1964 [1931])

Wainwright, Hilary, Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy (Seagull and Chicago University Press, 2010, updated paperback)

White, Stuart and Leighton, Dan, eds, Building a Citizen Society: The Emerging Politics of Republican Democracy (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2008)

Wright, Erik Olin, Envisioning Real Utopias (London, Verso, forthcoming)

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